Towing a Trailer: Know Before You Tow

By Benjamin Jerew

Towing a trailer seems simple – install a hitch, hook up, and go, right? Mere appearances cannot guarantee your vehicle is capable of towing, even fitted with a hitch.

In fact, a hitch can be fitted to practically any vehicle on the road, but there are many factors that go into determining the towing capability of any given vehicle. Newton’s First Law of Motion is key: Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and heavier objects are harder to move. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and heavier objects are harder to turn and stop. Between the vehicle, how it’s equipped, and how you drive, know before you tow.

Towing a Trailer with the Right Vehicle

Engine power and torque seem a reasonable place to start, and practically any vehicle with around 400 lb•ft (542 N•m) of torque can pull over 4,500 kg, even more, such as a Toyota Tundra towing some 136,000 kg of retired NASA Space Shuttle across a bridge. Stopping 136,000 kg or 4,500 kg is another matter altogether. When it comes to towing a trailer with your car, truck, or SUV, it’s more than raw power and torque.

Check the owner’s manual for the vehicle Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) to get an idea what it is designed to handle. That GCWR includes not only any trailer and its load, but passengers, luggage, and other things in the vehicle. Everything in the vehicle is designed to manage the load, frame, chassis, suspension, steering, engine, transmission, cooling, and brakes.

Towing a Trailer with the Right Equipment

Besides the hitch receiver, your vehicle may need additional equipment, especially if your vehicle wasn’t made with towing in mind. Vehicles made for towing usually come with a hitch receiver mount, so you’ll need a drawbar and hitch ball to mate your trailer to your vehicle. A trailer lighting connector should be close by the hitch. Some vehicles have extended or adjustable mirrors for visibility around the load. Made-for-towing vehicles usually have bigger brakes and additional transmission cooling.

If the intended trailer and load are within GVWR, upgrades may be available to manage to tow. Auxiliary transmission coolers prevent transmission overheating, extended mirrors improve visibility, and big brakes improve stopping power. For heavy loads, a weight distribution hitch or air suspension keeps the tow vehicle level, improving stability.

Towing a Trailer with the Right Attitude

Do not underestimate the challenge of driving with a trailer attached. Aside from the technical aspects of the tow vehicle and trailer, having the right attitude is key when attaching anything bigger than a bike rack to your hitch. Acceleration and braking will take longer – leave plenty of space between you and the next vehicle. You need to make wider turns than usual to avoid hitting other vehicles, sidewalks, trees, or pedestrians.

Driving with a trailer in tow requires practice. At first, try driving an unloaded trailer on back roads or in a parking lot to get used to the time and space it requires. Driving in reverse is a special skill, also requiring much practice to master. Again, parking lots and empty fields are great places to practice your driving skills. Finally, when getting out on the road, take it easy until you become accustomed to how your vehicle acts with the additional load. Check out brake services available at any of our 600 NAPA AUTOPRO locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on towing a trailer, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTOPRO Service Centre.